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The UN’s Tango with the Congo

Reading the preamble to United Nations mandates is always an exercise in lawyerly surrealism. That of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping operation in the DR Congo, is no exception:

“Reaffirming the basic principles of peacekeeping, including consent of the parties, impartiality, and non-use of force,” it starts off, continuing in the same vein: “reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the DRC…” These opening stanzas are then, however, quickly followed by the counterpoint: “Remaining deeply concerned by reports of increased serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed by some members of the Armed Forces of the DRC….reiterating its concern over the lack of progress in the investigations and prosecutions against alleged perpetrators of human rights violations.”

Indeed, the entire mandate has been imbued with a certain schizophrenia. On the one hand, the mission has been tasked––for the past six and some years, since it became a stabilization mission in 2010––with supporting the Congolese government to extend state authority; on the other, its imperative has been to protect civilians and defend democracy, often from that very same government.

The new MONUSCO mandate, approved by the UN Security Council on March 31, seeks to square this circle. Whereas last years’ mandate placed a greater emphasis on joint military operations against armed groups and general support to state institutions, this time the 15-member Council placed greater emphasis on the need for elections. Compare these key parts of the two  mandates:

2017

28. Decides that the strategic priorities of MONUSCO are to contribute to the following objectives: (a) Protection of civilians, as described in paragraph 34(i) of this resolution; (b) Support to the implementation of the 31 December 2016 agreement and the electoral process, as described in paragraph 34(ii) of this resolution, in order to contribute to the stabilisation of the DRC;

2016

29. Decides that the strategic priorities of MONUSCO are to contribute to the following objectives: (a) Protection of civilians, through a comprehensive approach involving all components of MONUSCO, including through reduction of the threat posed by Congolese and foreign armed groups and of violence against civilians, including sexual and gender-based violence and violence against children to a level that can be effectively managed by the Congolese justice and security institutions; (b) Stabilization through the establishment of functional, professional, and accountable state institutions, including security and judicial institutions, and through support to the creation of an environment conducive to peaceful, credible and timely elections reducing the risk of instability.

Yes, it’s a matter of a few commas and some fancy language. But it matters. As I have argued elsewhere, the mission had dead-ended itself by committing itself to an abusive relationship with its Congolese partner. In some places, such as Beni and Lubero territories, the same Congolese army it has collaborated with has arguably been fomenting conflict. Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, surely played a role by lambasting the UN for “aiding a government that is inflicting predatory behavior against its own people.” In various parts of the mandate, the Council took a more aggressive tone, even recalling its ability to impose sanctions.

It is true––it compensated for this tone with a reduction in troops strength by roughly 3,000. But this reduction, which most media focused on, was only a further sign of the extent to which the major donor countries have given up on transforming the conflict through military means.

It is also, however, notable, for what the mandate did not do. It did not go so far as to say that the mission to oversee or legitimate the electoral process––as the mission in the Ivory Coast so controversially did in 2010. Nor will the mission be able to do many of the things the mandate asks it to do: supporting security sector reform, providing technical advice to the electoral commission, or helping with the demobilization of Congolese combatants––all things that would require a recalcitrant government to play ball.

In the end, the mandate left one, quintessential clause out of the preamble:

Recalling that the mission has been increasingly politically marginalized since the 2006 elections, that it is extremely useful in reporting on the troubled crisis and providing security and logistics for humanitarian access, but that its political importance has been eclipsed in recent years by other actors. Increasingly, it is the Congolese themselves––and sometimes the African Union, or the other regional bodies––who are the protagonists in this ongoing drama. As it well should be.